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By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
November 19, 1993


Guy Maddin
Brent Neale;
Kyle McCulloch;
Gosia Dobrowolska;
Vince Rimmer
Not rated

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"Careful," the hilariously bizarre new film from Canadian director Guy Maddin, is like some lost masterpiece from a time-warped alternative dimension -- a strange artifact that time forgot.

Everything about this curious enterprise seems perversely anomalous. Its setting is a mountain village in the fictitious kingdom of Tolbaz, a place so precariously positioned that the slightest noise -- even a sneeze -- might cause a massive avalanche. To prevent such a calamity, the people of Tolbaz are forced to live according to the strictest rules of propriety and decorum. "Careful," a voice commands, like a schoolmaster. "Keep a lid on it. Don't get wet. Be still. Don't sit so close to the walnut tree."

Of course, beneath all this surface politeness and courtesy lies a swamp of depravity. The main characters are two brothers, Johann and Grigorss (Brent Neale and Kyle McCulloch), well-mannered boys, basically, who attend butler school and have the misfortune of being in love with their mother, Zenaida (Gosia Dobrowolska). A third brother, Franz (Vince Rimmer), sits lonely by the window in the attic, where he is kept.

The story follows a mad logic all its own. In one scene Johann has a lurid dream about his mother and then as punishment presses burning coals against his lips. In another, Grigorss spills wax on the face of a corpse, then wipes it off in a panic, rubbing the skin raw. The fun of all this lies in the uncanny extravagance of Maddin's exaggerations.

Visually, the picture is an exceptional feat. Using wildly angled shots and footage that is tinted or intentionally distressed to mimic the texture of aged film stock, Maddin presents us with ghostly images that seem just beyond explanation. And the dialogue is equally baroque. (My favorite line is "Don't boast, Grigorss, it will make you callous. And stop eating those gooseberries.")

At times you feel as if you're watching some Jeanette MacDonald operetta gone insane; at others it has the haphazard quality of an Ed Wood cheapie. Perhaps the strangest aspect of all is that somehow Maddin manages to make all this outrageous inventiveness hang together. It's of a piece, though a piece of what I'm still not quite sure.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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